GOP Pushes Early Voting

Republican Initiative Follows Democrats’ Success in Recent Elections

NewRepublicans are trying to boost their early-voting efforts after lagging behind Democrats in the past two election cycles, spending unprecedented sums at the state level and launching a national campaign to get GOP voters to cast ballots before Election Day.

With early voting beginning Friday in three states, the GOP’s efforts have the potential to affect the outcome of close races. Campaigns that bank early votes can then spend their resources chasing supporters with less reliable voting histories, who may need a push to the polls.

Thirty-five states allow some voting before Election Day, with Oregon and Washington conducting their elections entirely by mail starting in early October.

An immediate focus of Republicans’ campaign is Iowa, where early voting begins next Thursday. The state party has gone from investing nothing in its 2010 early-voting push to more than $1 million this year, Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said.

At the same time, the Republican National Committee on Friday is launching an effort to get GOP voters to commit to casting ballots early, with a campaign that mimics the social-media-driven “ice bucket challenge” that raised money for disease research.

Iowa, where GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley are competing in one of the closest Senate races in the country, illustrates the challenge Republicans face and how far behind Democrats they remain. Democrats there cast 29,000 more early ballots than did Republicans in 2010—though the GOP swept top offices that year—and 68,000 more than Republicans in 2012, when President Barack Obama carried the state for a second time.

To help catch up, GOP Gov. Terry Branstad is touting early voting in Facebook messages, and the statewide GOP ticket is scheduled to appear at an “early voting kick-off rally” in Davenport next Thursday.

Already, Iowa Republicans are behind Democrats. According to data from the secretary of state, Iowa Democrats this year have requested nearly twice as many early-voting absentee ballots as have Republicans—more than 50,100 ballots were requested by Democrats and 27,400 by Republicans as of Wednesday, the latest data available.

Mr. Kaufmann said he didn’t expect Republicans to close the gap with Democrats this year. Many Republican voters, he said, see voting as a public act of patriotism and don’t wish to give up their Election Day routine.

“There are so many more Republicans for whom the act of going to the polls on Election Day is an act of gratitude, an act of duty, an act of saying thank you to their country,” said Mr. Kaufmann, a former state lawmaker who became party chairman in June. “It really means a lot to many of them.”

Democrats say pushing early voting to supporters is no longer a novel approach. Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Christina Freundlich called it “textbook grass-roots work.” The DNC believes its early-voter advantage from 2012 will carry over as people repeat past behaviors.

“To the extent that voters do have that muscle memory, if we can just turn them out in the way that they have been in turned out in the past, we’ll do well,” said Pratt Wiley, the director of voter expansion at the Democratic National Committee.

Six states will have more early-voting days in 2014 than they did in 2012.

Eight states will have fewer early-voting days in 2014 than in 2012, with the most drastic decrease in Maine, which will go from 46 days of early voting to 16. Among the eight: Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio, where new limits were signed by GOP lawmakers. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for example, signed legislation forbidding early voting on weekends, after Republicans argued it was necessary to create uniform voting procedures across the state.

Before 2008, early voters tended to be more educated, older, wealthier and more partisan than the general public, said Paul Gronke, the founder of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. But Mr. Obama’s first presidential campaign that year changed the calculus for Democrats—mobilizing African-American church groups and others to go to the polls as soon as possible.

“Obama was a game-changer, because he was able to mobilize African-Americans. Now, particularly in southern states, African-Americans are showing strong preference to early voting,” Mr. Gronke said. “The question is: Will this last beyond Obama?”

To try to change Republicans’ voting culture, the RNC on Friday will begin redirecting people who visit GOP.com to a website that will allow them to request an absentee ballot or find their early-voting location. The party will gather these voters’ information and use it to press them to vote before Election Day.

While Democrats are universally pushing their voters to cast ballots early, the GOP push varies by state.

In Wisconsin, where Mr. Walker faces a tough re-election challenge from Democrat Mary Burke, there will be no widespread campaign from state Republicans to push early voting, which begins there Oct. 20. Instead, the party will encourage voters who cast early ballots before to do so again, and will make an Election Day push for voters who tend to vote then, state GOP officials said.

“The relationships that we’ve built are going to inform our get-out-the-vote operations,” Wisconsin GOP Chairman Joe Fadness said. “We think that these mechanics and these efforts are going to make the difference.”

Wisconsin Democrats intend to hold early-voting rallies to boost Ms. Burke. “We believe it’s a great success not just to bank votes early but to give people who would have a hard time making it to the polls on Election Day a chance to vote,” said Mike Tate, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

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